Category Archives: Books

The Secret History of PWE

Secret History of PWE

The Secret History of PWE by David Garnett

As part of my wider reading around S.O.E. in the Balkans, I ordered a copy of David Garnett‘s The Secret History of PWE (Political Warfare Executive). It really was secret, too – Garnett, a PWE officer himself, was commissioned by the Foreign Office after the war to write an official history. What he produced was considered so incendiary that it was classified “Secret – For Official Use Only” for 50 years, and only published at the turn of the last century.

The book is strictly for war nuts – much of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. In fact most of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. The wartime British propaganda machine was seemingly so focused on the enemy on the other side of the corridor that it’s a wonder anything anti-German was produced at all. What was produced, it’s worth mentioning, was often very poor quality. In Albania in particular it was a constant complaint of the S.O.E. officers on the ground that Allied propaganda, both BBC broadcasts and leaflet drops, was inept and clumsy.

Writer David Garnett

David Garnett – probably not cut out for fighting, but very good at writing bitchy official histories

Garnett was known to his friends as “Bunny” and had spent the First World War working on fruit farms with his gay lover (he had been a conscientious objector). He went on to become a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and co-founded the Nonesuch Press. It’s hard to think of a less suitable choice to write a dull, bureaucratic official history. Perhaps the Whitehall mandarin who commissioned him was feeling mischevious.

Garnett is particularly illuminating on the PWE’s early days in autumn 1939. In Berlin Hitler was planning the Blitzkrieg and continuing to build the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen. At PWE’s new Woburn headquarters, meanwhile, there were more important things to consider  –

“The provision of amenities at Woburn was tackled in the typical British fashion – by the formation of a committee. A Recreation Committee, meeting first in October 1939, busied itself with such matters as finding a squash court and a football field, subscription to a nearby golf club, the hiring of horses and attempting to obtain permission to ride them in Woburn Park, obtaining books from the Times Book Club and elsewhere to form a library, the institution of a weekly cinema show in the Abbey, the establishment of a canteen with a bar, the laying of a dance floor and the providing of Christmas lunch, and the laying out and care of two lawn tennis courts, table tennis, billiards and clock golf. The formation of a choral society and the organisation of lessons in German all followed.”    

It’s a wonder Britain won the war at all. Oh, hang on – we didn’t. Until the Soviet Union was, ahem, embarrassed into withdrawing its tacit support for Hitler, and the US entered the fray, we looked guaranteed to lose, badly.

Random fact: Garnett’s next book, Aspects of Love (1955), wasn’t top secret. In fact it later became an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

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Tour of Duty

Alex Smyth in the village of Xibër

Alex Smyth, the son of SOE officer Captain Frank Smyth, approaches the house in which his father spent three months hiding during World War II

Mission creep. When I started this blog it had a simple purpose – to publicise the trek I hope to organise in the footsteps of Brigadier E.F. ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 [there should be an announcement on this in the next few weeks]. But one thing led to another and last summer I agreed to help Alex Smyth, the son of one of the SOE officers who served in Albania during World War II, put together a tour in his father’s footsteps.

One thing that had been driven home to me during my dalliance with Albania is that the roads are terrible. The only way to get around is by serious 4×4, unless you’re happy to stick to the main city-to-city roads. So after a raki or two with my friend Elton Caushi of Tirana-based tour agency Albanian Trip, we decided to start a new brand and website focused on off-road adventure tourism in Albania. And it was under this new guise – Drive Albania – that the Smyth tour was organised.

A lot of planning went into the tour, and several recce trips were made. Some failed – the village of Xibër, where Alex’s father Captain Frank Smyth spent about three months in early 1944, proved impossible to reach due to a combination of landslides and mechanical failure. Some succeeded, like our trip to Macukull described in the last post (ironically, the heavy rain that has afflicted the Balkans this spring meant we couldn’t reach Macukull with Alex Smyth when it mattered).

Figuring out just where Captain Smyth had been in Albania 70 years on was a painstaking task. Dr Roderick Bailey – whose new book on SOE’s war against Fascist Italy, Target Italy has just been published – was an immense help, as was SOE researcher Dr Steven Kippax, who introduced Alex to us in the first place.

The artist Robert Permeti

Alex Smyth (left) talks with Robert Permeti while Elton Caushi (centre) translates

The tour took 11 days, and you can link through to photos via the Drive Albania website. One of the most interesting days (for me, anyway) was a meeting with the artist Robert Permeti, whose painting “The Abyss” sits at the top of this blog. I’ll put a post up about this fascinating day shortly. In the meantime, you can check out photos from the first five days of the tour here, here, here, here and here.

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Happy Anniversary

Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies' SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

It’s a warm October night in Tirana, and 70 years, to within an hour or two, since Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies of the Royal Ulster Rifles parachuted into Bizë, a plateau high up in the Çermenika mountains about 40km to the east.

His mission, conceived and run by the Special Operations Executive in Cairo and codenamed SPILLWAY, was supposed to give help to whoever was killing the most Germans – which apparently meant the forces of the National Liberation Front (LNÇ), controlled by Albania’s future dictator, Enver Hoxha.

SPILLWAY was ill-conceived, ill-informed and ill-supplied, and ultimately a tragic failure. In January 1944, after several torrid weeks being chased through the Çermenika, Davies himself was shot through the liver and heel and captured by Albanians fighting for the occupying Germans. His second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, escaped, only to die four weeks later following an operation to remove his frostbitten, gangrenous toes.

It’s a depressing story. The only reason we know its finer detail, and the exact route Davies and his men took, is thanks to the diary kept against orders by Nicholls and held today by the Imperial War Museum in London. Due to the IWM’s crack team of blood-thirsty lawyers, I can’t quote from the diary. But what I can do, over the next few months, is give you an idea of what was happening on the ground, 70 years ago.

Blogging is not my natural forté (frankly I find it akin to pulling teeth), but hopefully I can post every few days with excerpts from Davies’ 1952 memoir, Illyrian Venture (delivered to his publisher on the day he died) and other sources. And hopefully I’ll find the time too to post on my ongoing research of the route taken by the SPILLWAY mission, with a view to an ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ in summer 2014.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

On Friday 15 October 1943, at around 20.00, Davies’ plane began to lose height after its four-hour journey from Tocra, Libya. Davies later wrote –

The dispatcher touched me to be ready. The red light came. I took a deep breath. ‘Green!’ I jumped into the centre of the hole, position of attention, looking up. My back was to the slipstream, the wind took my knees. It was like sitting in an armchair – much quieter and comfier than the Hudson*… I dropped and dropped. Would the ‘chute never open? A jerk at my shoulders… all was peace…

A Christmas card could not have beaten the scene. A low moon was hanging like an orange in the sky, three mountain peaks stood up round me, white granite sparkling with frost, a bowl in the mountain tops, into which I was falling, with forests round the edges, a white plain in the middle, broken by a stream winding its way across. Why was the plain white? Was it snow? No, it looked more like salt flats… I reached on the lift webs and tensed myself. Feet together, knees together, turn obliquely. And then I fell through fifty feet of mist on to frosty grass…

Men were running towards me, men with slung rifles and bandoliers, wearing the red Partisan star in their hats… They surrounded me and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo! General.’…

The crowd was parted to let in an English officer, wearing an Albanian white fez-shaped hat.

‘I’m Smiley, sir,’ he said…

Taken from Illyrian Venture by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies (The Bodley Head, 1952). *Actually a Halifax.

The site of the SPILLWAY mission's HQ, November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

The site of the SPILLWAY mission’s HQ, November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

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Demand & Supply

You give us the tools and we'll finish the job - essential anti-Nazi kit

You give us the tools and we’ll finish the job – essential anti-Nazi kit

For the past 10 days I’ve been pretty much living in Albania circa 1943/44. A strange place. I’ve read and digested hundreds of pages of archive documents (photographed and Dropboxed) and memoirs and am reeling slightly. One of the things that has surprised me is how upsetting it can be. A lot of good people, British and Albanian, met very sticky ends. Probably most depressing is the tale of Lazar Fundo, who was flayed to death on the orders of Enver Hoxha in September 1944, in front of his helpless friend, SOE’s Tony Simcox.

I remember seeing Simcox’s recollections for the first time in London’s Imperial War Museum – a series of letters from the 1990s. The first were written in a strong, clear hand. But as age and ill-health took hold, the writing became shaky, larger, almost illegible. The anger he felt, even after 60-odd years, was clear enough though.

I’ve developed a bit of Hoxha fixation. I read his Anglo-American Threat to Albania a while back, but re-read it now along with various other works of his. Hard going. Not that they’re badly written – they’re not; the translator (the British communist and journalist Bill Bland, I assume) did a fine job. But there’s something about them that is deeply unsettling. His mind is not a pleasant place to spend time.

Hoxha lies too, but I can forgive him that – he was a politician. One of his favourite subjects is how inadequate RAF air supply was. Mud sticks; a few months ago I was in a café in the village of Qeparo when one old chap told me we Brits had dropped in hundreds of left-handed boots, one of Hoxha’s favourite lines. Much as I hate to admit it, he had a point when it came to disappointing air drops – and it didn’t just happen in Albania.

In Yugoslavia, SOE’s Bill Bailey had similar issues when the RAF supplied his mission to the Çetnik leader, Mihailovic, as Michael McConville recounts in his memoir, A Small War in the Balkans

From the moment of Bailey’s arrival, Mihailovic had assumed that [supplies] would be immediately available. It was not. What was dropped, from the only two RAF aircraft which could be spared in a period of ten weeks from competing priorities elsewhere, was strong on elaboration and idiosyncratic to the point of idiocy. Whoever controlled the loading in North Africa was either half-witted or malevolent.

Bailey’s only effective bargaining counter was subverted farcically by the arrival from the sky of, among a few more useful aids to warfare, 30 million Italian East African Occupation lire, overprinted with the word ‘Ethiopia’; several hundred boxes of tropical anti-snake-bite serum; 500 left-footed boots; and another load of boots, correctly paired, but all of them size six. [that’s about 37, Eurofolk]

Apparently it got worse – on one occasion Bailey was dropped several hundred lampshades. Military specification lampshades, but still not ideal for fighting Nazis.

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Go East, Young Man

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

To my shame, until this week I had never read Fitzroy Maclean’s book Eastern Approaches. I have now, and thought it was worth a rather random post.

Fitzroy Maclean, I should point out, is not to be confused with Neil ‘Billy’ McLean. Maclean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 to liaise with the partisans there; McLean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Albania in 1943 to work with the partisans there. Maclean was supposedly a model for James Bond, McLean wasn’t. Simple.

Despite being focused on Tito and Yugoslavia, Eastern Approaches does have some relevance for Albania. Two parts in particular grabbed me. The first will probably be familiar to Brits, but hopefully new for Albanian readers. I think it goes a long way to explaining British policy in the Balkans during the war.

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches - a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches – a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

In November 1943 Maclean was pulled out of Yugoslavia and reported directly to Churchill in Cairo. He had an audience with the great man, who was reclining in his bed, smoking a cigar, resplendent in an embroidered dressing gown. After telling Maclean about his recent meeting with Stalin, and asking the young officer if he wore a kilt when he parachuted, Churchill got down to brass tacks, saying that the Allies were going to throw their weight behind Tito and withdraw help from the nationalist leader Mihajlovic and his Cetnik forces. All fine as far as Maclean was concerned, but he did see a sticking point –

I now emphasized to Mr. Churchill… that in my view the Partisans… would be the decisive political factor in Jugoslavia after the war and, secondly, that Tito and the other leaders of the Movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system which they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly orientated towards the Soviet Union. 

The Prime Minister’s reply resolved my doubts.

‘Do you intend,’ he asked, ‘to make Jugoslavia your home after the war?’

‘No, Sir,’ I replied. 

‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘And that being so, the less you and I worry about the form of Government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans?’

On January 18 1945, with the war in Europe slowly coming to a bloody end, Churchill made the same point in the House of Commons, Maclean recounts…

‘We have no special interest in the political regime which prevails in Jugoslavia. Few people in Britain, I imagine, are going to be more cheerful or downcast because of the future constitution of Jugoslavia.’

What was true for Yugoslavia was doubly true for Albania, which, for the record, has just one reference in Eastern Approaches‘ index.

Tito - a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

Tito – a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

The second passage to stick in my mind concerns the arming of the Yugoslav partisans. A couple of weeks ago I met a young Albanian chap at a party in Tirana, who mentioned that he’d just finished Albania’s National Liberation Struggle: The Bitter Victory, by Reginald Hibbert. Hibbert was a junior SOE officer who went on to become ambassador to France. A few of Hibbert’s fellow officers were convinced he was part of the supposed communist conspiracy to subvert SOE, even refusing to attend reunions if he was present (Hibbert certainly had left-wing leanings).

In his book Hibbert tries to quash the myth, or rather theory, that SOE was responsible for delivering up large chunks of the Balkans to the Soviets. My copy is in Tirana, unfortunately, and I’m not, but Hibbert makes great play of the fact that the number of weapons dropped to Hoxha’s partisans was, in the great scheme of things, relatively small and therefore didn’t have much to do with Hoxha’s rise to power. The young Albanian chap found this hilarious, pointing out that if he was given 40,000 WWII-era rifles today he’d probably be able to defeat the modern-day Albanian army and take over the country himself.

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Hibbert’s focus on tonnage also rather misses the point – what really counted was prestige. Something that Maclean is all too aware of –

The change in our attitude also had an important psychological effect. All the prestige which the Cetniks had hitherto enjoyed as a result of Allied support was now transferred to the Partisans…

As often happens, these developments coming one after the other had a snowball effect. Allied support and supplies had brought more volunteers; better equipped and more numerous, the Partisans had been able to increase the scale of their operations; their success in the field had, in turn, brought in larger stocks of captured weapons and, incidentally further increased their prestige; so that in the space of a few months the Movement had gone from strength to strength.

Those Albanians who do have some knowledge of British involvement in their country during the War, and our role in bringing Hoxha to power, tend to take the (ironic) view, ‘Thanks for that…’ I sometimes find it hard to disagree with them.

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

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Junk History

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

One of the things I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that those Albanians who were lucky enough to be educated under communism are already dimly aware that British Liaison Officers were sent to liaise with Enver Hoxha during the War. In some parts there’s a slight obsession with the thousands of gold sovereigns we Brits supposedly left buried all over the place – I’m sure some folk suspect I’m a gold hunter.

Hoxha wrote about the various BLOs parachuted to work with him in his memoir The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, which is available as a free PDF on the interweb, along with most of his other scribblings, at this beautifully designed communist website. It’s actually very readable, though probably not as reliable a historical document as, say, The Bible. Trouble is, a lot of his anti-British slurs have stuck. Particularly one particularly nasty lie about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies, who led the SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44 that excites me so much and has inspired September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Dr Roderick Bailey.

Only a couple of nights ago, as I was slurping the excellent Albanian wine at one of my regular haunts, Juvenilja, the loquacious maître d spoke of Davies ‘surrendering’ to the Germans. I protested, pointing out that Davies had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the heel, was unable to walk and on the verge of death (he drifted in and out of consciousness for a month under surpassingly compassionate German care in Tirana). It cut no ice with the maître d, sadly. The image of Davies as an ineffectual coward was too deeply ingrained.

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Hoxha’s account of Davies capture in TAATTA is given below. I don’t know who holds the copyright to his works, but as they’re freely available online I’ll quote at length. I’m sure Hoxha himself would approve, property being theft and all. Love the use of <<>> for quotation marks, by the way –

During those days a British Lieutenant called Tray horn [sic] had surrendered to the Germans. It seems he had told them everything about the General, where he was staying and his plans. On the day after we left, January 8, the Ballists of Azis Biçaku and a platoon of German soldiers moved in on the sheepfolds of Kostenja, where the partisans with the British General and four other people were located. The partisans, led by Baba Faja, began to fight off the attacks from the four sides. Baba Faja led the fighting, directing the attacks on the enemy in order to break through the encirclement and enter a nearby forest and at the same time protected and opened the way for the General. Shouting, «Take care of the General!» Baba Faja continued to fight in the vanguard to cover their withdrawal. Nicholls and another British officer also fought together with the partisans to break through the encirclement. In the heat of the battle the partisans saw that the General was not moving. Some of them went back to get him, but to their astonishment saw that he was leaning against the trunk of a tree with a red silk sash draped across his chest and shouting and gesturing to them to go away. Meanwhile Frederik, while fighting alongside Nicholls, heard the General say to the Colonel:

«Go on, I am hit. You take charge!»

«Very good, sir, goodbye!» replied the Colonel.

A number of Ballists and Germans were killed and the firing stopped. The enemy withdrew. After the battle, the partisans discovered that the British General was missing. Exhausted, completely discouraged, he had thrown away his weapons and surrendered without firing a shot.

The report about the event reached me at Shmil, when we had made all the preparations for our journey and were almost ready to start for the Korça zone. The General who had advised us to surrender had long been planning to surrender himself. Thus, he found the moment and made his plan a reality.

Hoxha wrote this in the 1970s, 20 years after Davies published his own memoir, Illyrian Venture, which Hoxha surely had translated into Albanian for his own private consumption. Perhaps Davies’ interpreter (and Hoxha’s spy) Fred Nosi read it to him as a bedtime story.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Rod Bailey has terrified me with tales of what happens to historical bloggers who quote too much from published sources without paying the requisite groats to the (predatory capitalist) publishers concerned, so I’ll use plenty of … as I share Davies’ version. Here he and his mission are climbing slowly up an exposed hillside under enemy fire, shortly after being assured by Baba Faja’s commissar that the area was clear of the enemy (‘It is impossible, my General, we have spies in every village, every track is watched, we are bound to get at least two hours’ warning…’) –

We were getting within reach of the forest and I was thinking we would soon be safe, when a burst of Spandau fire came from our right front. I felt as though a horse had kicked me hard in the ribs. I spun round and fell into a snowdrift in a gully on my right. Behind me, Chesshire had been hit through the thigh, the Italian, Colonel Barbacinto, through the neck, and an Albanian partisan through both thighs. They too fell into the gully…

Bullets were still cracking around continuously… I shouted to Nicholls, ‘Go on, I’m hit – you take charge.’ He looked down at us in horror; the one thing he had not wanted to happen had happened. He was ill, weak, and in no state to march, still less to take on the responsibility of the Mission at a time of disaster like this. He just said, ‘Very good, sir, goodbye,’ and went on climbing painfully.

Davies and the other wounded were dragged through the snow to a nearby sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sgt Jim Smith, who held the Ballists off till his revolver was empty, then used his fists till he was overwhelmed. I won’t go into too much detail about this as Smith is a real hero, and will get a post of his own in the next couple of weeks.

Hoxha was mistaken about a number of Germans being killed. No Germans were killed for the simple reason that no Germans were present. Davies was captured by Albanians led by the local Ballist commander Azis Biçaku, and handed over to the Germans four days later after being carried out of the mountains on a stretcher.

Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies' SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Davies later heard a report that Hoxha had warning of the attack, and left Davies and his mission to draw it while he and the LNC Council slipped away, but adds –

Palmer [Lt Col Alan Palmer, who worked with Hoxha in 1944 and gave strong support to the LNC] was quite definite that there was no knowledge of the future disaster and that Enver was genuinely upset at the turn that events took. 

Finally, I should point out that Hoxha’s suggestion that Lt Frank Trayhorn betrayed Davies is simply not credible. Trayhorn had been separated from Davies and Nicholls from about 18/19 December, so 20 days earlier, and his last information would have been that they were heading east to break out of the German encirclement. Trayhorn probably wouldn’t have known where Davies was even had he had wished to betray him. There is no evidence that Trayhorn experienced any rough treatment at German hands after his capture, too, so for Hoxha’s accusation to hold any water Trayhorn would have had to voluntarily share information that he almost certainly didn’t have.

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Carry on Nurse

The Secret Rescue, by Cate Lineberry

The Secret Rescue, by Cate Lineberry

Albania is endlessly fascinating. That’s one of the joys of the place – there are stories everywhere. An American writer, Cate Lineberry, has just released a book telling one of the best – it’s called The Secret Rescue, and is published by Little, Brown & Company.

In early November 1943, a few weeks after Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and the SPILLWAY mission were dropped into the Martanesh region, a plane load of US medics, including 13 female nurses, crashlanded south of Elbasan, in central Albania. It took them two months to reach SOE’s coastal hideaway, SEAVIEW, and escape to Italy.

Lt Gavan B Duffy's personal file, and mugshots

Lt Gavan B Duffy’s personal file, and mugshots

The story is epic. I’ve read memoirs by two of the Americans – – and the SOE report by the officer who guided them out, Lieutenant Gavan Duffy (National Archives HS 5/124). I don’t have the quote to hand, but another British Liaison Officer – David Smiley, if I remember correctly – described Duffy as having two interests in life: demolition and explosives. His report is a gem, starting off –

“The American Party, which consisted of two P/O’s, 12 [sic] nurses and 15 enlisted men, left SICILY on board a D.C.47 en route for BARI, ITALY. The approximate time for such a flight is 40 minutes; two months later the party did arrive safely at BARI, unharmed, but possibly conscious of the fact that accidents can happen even in this modern era of aviation…”

Also –

“For years to come I feel sure that certain inhabitants of ALBANIA will never forget the “Cupka Amerikane” (American Girls), who always managed to produce the necessary cosmetics and render the necessary running repairs. They used to leave the people non-plussed, including, I might add, myself; after all, they were in enemy occupied territory. Amazing! Much too deep for me as a soldier!”

Reading between the lines of published memoirs by two of the American party, there might just have been a sniff of romance between Duffy and one of the nurses, Agnes ‘Jens’ Jensen. I look forward to reading Cate’s book and finding out if I’m over-imagining.

Also in the National Archives, as well as Duffy’s report, is a an ‘Evaders Statement’ by three of the nurses, who got separated from the main body of the party just a few days after the crash (HS5/67). They were finally evacuated in March, after a prolonged stay in Berat. There’s a spine-tingling moment when they realise they are on their own, and the Germans have arrived in town –

“Later in the afternoon, several Albanian soldiers and two Germans entered the house. The Albanians remained below, while the two Germans came upstairs and into our room. At the time, Lt [Ava Ann] Maness was playing solitaire with airplane-spotters’ cards, and one German, upon seeing a card with the figure of a B-25 on it, remarked ‘Bono’. The other German, who could speak a little English, asked what our uniforms represented, to which we replied ‘Infimara’ (Nurse), and asked us the significance of our Air Corps sleeve patches, and we told him. They asked if we were Albanian, to which we replied in the affirmative, but the other remarked, ‘Nix, nix, Albaninan.’ Both Germans were wearing Red Cross buttons in their caps, and black fatigue uniforms. They then left the room, and went downstairs, and the one who spoke a little English told Mrs Karaja to keep us within the limits of the house and we would be alright.”

If you want to find out more, then buy Cate’s book. The Daily Beast has made it one of the week’s hot reads

“The book combines all of the elements that draw us to WWII stories: the daring of The Guns of Navarone, the suspense of The Great Escape, and the bravery reminiscent of Ill Met by Moonlight. It’s the inclusion of so many women, though, that makes this story unique. It’s always good to be reminded that by no means did men have a monopoly on grace-under-fire during the world’s greatest conflagration.”

– and it’s surely a shoe-in for a film adaptation. Or a Nurses’ Trail, to sit alongside the Endurance Vile Trail this September, for that matter…

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Men (and women) behaving badly

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Over the weekend, I read that good blogs have brief posts, and are frequently updated. Whoops. But it’s been an interesting few days – fielding enquiries about September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Rod Bailey has kept me busy, and a breakdown in France (mechanical, not nervous) saw me cross the Channel three times in one day. But anyway, on with the blog…

One of the things that has struck me about SOE’s brave but ill-fated campaign in Albania is that it is impossible to understand without a grasp of what was going on in Cairo at the time. This subject deserves a book in itself – in fact it got one, in Artemis Cooper’s brilliant Cairo in the War. It was published in 1989 and is now out of print (there’s a new paperback going for £1,906.83 on Amazon as I write), but thankfully a Kindle version is in the pipeline (due October). Why on earth it wasn’t reissued or released on Kindle last year when her bestselling biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor was getting glowing reviews in the nationals is question only her publishers can answer.

The book is packed with top quality anecdote, and illuminating glimpses into Rustem Building, SOE’s dysfunctional HQ, headed up in 1943 by Brigadier ‘Bolo’ Keble, who stomped the corridors in a pair of desert boots, khaki shorts and a sweaty white vest.

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska - Sophie to her friends

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska – Sophie to her friends

Cooper also peeks into Tara, the house shared by Billy McLean and David Smiley (serving in Albania) with Xan Fielding and Paddy Leigh Fermor (Crete) over the winter of 43/44. The goings-on here are quite something, right down to Christmas lunch – a turkey with benzedrine stuffing. However, the reality was a lot racier than Cooper lets on, if David Smiley’s diary* is anything to to by. It seems that the châtelaine of the house, Sophie Tarnowska (or Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska, to be precise) bestowed her affections liberally, having flings with Smiley, Fielding (seemingly at the same time), possibly McLean, and Billy Moss, author of Ill Met by Moonlight, whom she went on to marry.

All this is by the by. The best anecdote by far deserves quoting in full, and concerns an officer whose identity has been lost in the midst of time –

… one pasha – when insulted beyond endurance by a very drunken British officer – decided to take serious revenge. He invited the officer to dinner, by which time the latter had completely forgotten the man he had been so rude to; but there seemed no reason to turn down this unexpected offer of a free meal, so he accepted. He rang the bell of the pasha’s house on the appointed night; but instead of being admitted by a polite sufragi, two huge Nubians hauled him into a room where his host announced, “You insulted me the other night, and now you will pay for it.” His trousers were pulled down and, while the two Nubians kept him still, the British officer was sexually assaulted by six other Nubians before being thrown out of the house. Most men would have kept this humiliating episode to themselves; but, the following day, this particular officer was telling everyone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night – dashed unpleasant. I got buggered by six Nubians…”

*In Billy McLean’s private papers at IWM London.

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